Wolf Richter: Wells Fargo Hasn’t Changed One Iota – Aggressive Cross Selling Baked In

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Yves here. During the foreclosure crisis, it was annoying to see how Wells Fargo would repeatedly cop a ‘tude of moral superiority in the press, when if anything its chain of title abuses were more egregious by virtue of being better institutionalized. By contrast, Bank of America, which was also grinding up homeowners casually, had acquired garbage barge Countrywide and then by imposing its mindless cost controls, drove out all the people who knew how to run Countrywide’s home built servicing platform…..which was one of its best assets. So as much as there was clearly a big element of design in Bank of America’s predatory conduct, some of it also resulted from incompetence. By contrast, given Wells’ smugness and tightly controlled retail operations, it’s a reasonable assumption that everything that takes place there is institutionalized.

This post demonstrates that despite former Wells CEO John Stumpf’s pious promises under oath before the House and Senate banking committees that aggressive cross selling was a thing of the past, nothing has changed. But perhaps because Stumpf is no longer at Wells, the bank feels no obligation to honor his commitments.

By Wolf Richter, a San Francisco based executive, entrepreneur, start up specialist, and author, with extensive international work experience. Originally published at Wolf Street

They have learned nothing.

I walked into my Wells Fargo branch to put my data backup into my safe deposit box, as I’ve been doing for a decade. This routine business turned into a wake-up call about safe deposit boxes and churned up insights into how Wells Fargo conducts to this day its cross-selling efforts: the algo makes them do it!

To clarify, I’m a happy customer. Wells Fargo handles day-to-day banking for me and my vast WOLF STREET media-mogul-empire corporation. The people are nice, and I have not yet noticed any fraudulent accounts in my name.

It doesn’t bother me that every time I call one of the national numbers with a problem or question, I have to swat away their offers of “pre-approved” credit cards, lines of credit, or other high-margin products. Having run a car dealership earlier in my life, I appreciate the art of aggressive cross-selling. However, we never-ever did it over the phone! We waited till we saw the whites of their eyes.

Yet at the counter for safe deposit boxes, I was in for a surprise. The young man – a 30-year-old employee would have looked suspiciously over-age at that branch – checked the computer for my box number. There was a problem. He asked for my driver’s license. He rummaged through a file cabinet, found the signature cards. He conferred with another kid. He came back, embarrassed. Turns out, the fact that I’ve been renting the box for a decade wasn’t in their computer system. So no-go.

I thought: That’s how easy it is to block you from getting into your safe deposit box. 

He called over a “personal banker” – a young woman – to “fix” the problem. We trotted off to her desk. She said the bank had “updated” its computer system. My box rental hadn’t made it into the new version. So she got busy on her computer. Took a while. She had to set it up. There were fees and discounts to discuss. There were things I had to read, agree to, and sign. She was just about finished, when she suddenly did a mini double-take of her screen. Everything came to a halt.

“I don’t mean to sell you anything,” she said after a long pause, with an embarrassed smile, “but….”

She could see the whites of my eyes! She turned her computer screen. It was filled with a Wells Fargo credit card promo. You’ve been pre-approved for this great offer, she said. “Your credit must be really good. Not many people get this offer.”

An algorithm had decided it was time to cross-sell; and she had to cross-sell to finish her job. That credit card promo was the next step in the procedure.


The algo that forces employees at the branch and at call centers to cross-sell was designed by humans, after strategic decisions had been made and funded, under the direction of top management at headquarters, such as current CEO Timothy Sloan and former CEO John Stumpf.

This cross-selling push is embedded in the software, is algorithm-driven, and kicks in at the most effective moment.

Even the recent disclosures, settlements, the keel-hauling in California and other states, and further investigations have not motivated Wells Fargo to strip these algos out of its computer system. They’re still there, working hard for your own good.

After she got rid of that promo page, and elegantly handled another topic she wanted to cover, I was finally allowed to get into my safe deposit box.

The next day, I received an email from Wells Fargo and Gallup. It asked for “feedback” on my “recent Wells Fargo visit” and offered me a chance to win $1,000.

Now I was curious. Though I never fill out surveys, I decided to check this out.

Up front, it asked if I spoke “to a banker about opening a NEW account or product,” or about one of my “CURRENT Wells Fargo accounts or products.” Was Wells Fargo trying to figure out if the “banker” did her job and pitched a new account?

After it asked me to rate my “overall satisfaction” with the visit, it listed a series of questions about the employee, whether they did things right the first time, etc. etc. It never once asked about the bank, how it screwed up with the safe deposit box.

And this: “The employee asked questions to identify options for meeting your financial needs.” Should I check “strongly agree” to help the employee out? She deserved it. She was nice. Clearly, the survey is checking on her to see if she did her job and tried to sell me something I didn’t need or want.

Remember, I’d gone to the branch to get into my safe deposit box, and not for retirement planning.

“Did you visit the branch to resolve a problem or error?” Nope. A “problem or error” occurred after I got there.

“Did you work with an employee to establish or confirm your financial priorities?” And “The employee provided products or services that aligned with your current financial needs.”

Again and again, each time couched in slightly different terms, the survey checked on the employee to see if she had been sufficiently aggressive in cross-selling.

The fact that surveys check to see if employees did their job in cross-selling tells me how big the pressure on them still is, even after all the revelations.

These survey results are used to manage employees. They probably get them rubbed in their faces during sales meetings and in performance evaluations. They know they’re being evaluated, not only by the algo-driven computer system at the bank, but also via customer responses, to make sure they push new accounts, credit cards, credit lines, brokerage accounts, and other products.

This is inbred into the bank. It’s part of its management doctrine and computer system. It’s partnering with Gallup to accomplish this. A contract with Gallup isn’t set up at the lower levels. And a few slaps on the wrist aren’t going to change a whole lot. It’s not just Wells Fargo. It’s the industry. It puts banks into the same category as car dealers. So steel yourself when you deal with them (just like you would walking into a dealership).

No bank is “so powerful as to be untouchable,” explained California State Treasurer John Chiang. Read…  Wells Fargo Getting Clocked by California: What, No Perp-Walk?

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  1. endoftheworld

    Of course there is no law saying you have to be polite to people who are trying to sell you unwanted stuff.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I sometimes get harsh with customer service people when they mainly don’t deserve it and I feel bad about it afterwards (once in a while I get a smarmy who thinks his job is to browbeat customers, and those are in a completely different category). They need a job, this is the best job they can get, and the real problem, as Wolf makes clear, is the horrible management. A post like his is about the best revenge he can get (and Wolf is too well behaved to be all that vengeful).

      1. endoftheworld

        It’s hard to be rude to the Filipinos who have largely take over the call center biz. I’ve been there and I know how hard it is to make a living over there. Also, they have their script that they are reading with a lot of courteous phrases mixed in, so you naturally go with the flow of bubbling politeness.

        Back when it was Pakistanis or Indians sometimes there was an almost desperate tone in their sometimes unfathomable English. A couple times I lost it.

    2. jm

      Sorry, but no. It’s very rarely appropriate to take your frustration out on the front line workers. In an “us” against “them” world you become the “them”. As the lyric goes, “I hate people when they’re not polite.”

      I view situations like this as an opportunity to reinforce the reality that the bosses are “them.” An illustration: recently I was at the local Safeway. There were far too few checkers to handle the traffic. People were understandably annoyed at the delay. Two people in front of me took it out on the cashier. When my turn came, I asked her how she was doing. She said, “stressed”. I told her she was doing good, the lack of adequate coverage was not her fault. She smiled and maybe even relaxed a little. When I got home and looked at the bill, I discovered that about $15 of deli items had not been scanned.

      Moral: The cashier responded to a minor display of kindness by screwing the company (and I got a nice “discount” to boot).

      Take it out on the bosses, not the the workers. It doesn’t take much to put sand in the gears.

    3. John Wright

      I visit a local store that sells inexpensive imported tools and am usually asked to buy a “service contract/extended warranty” by the checkers.

      I always decline, and they don’t push it further.

      They apparently get an extra 50 cents for each contract sold.

      And I’d guess if they don’t ask they could be subject to disciplinary action.

      Having to deal with impolite customers can’t enhance a minimum wage job.

      1. fajensen

        The mac pushers ’round here will attempt to sell an additional insurance costing about 200 EUR on a 1200 EUR MacBook Pro. It’s always fun to ask if the computer I just bought is no good, since I believe that the “enhanced warranty” is so expensive that some kind of serious failure must be baked into the price.

        Once they deny the product is bad, we can conclude that I really don’t need the insurance. ;)

        Margins are very thin in tech retail. Usually, the IT-shops make more profit on the insurance than they do on the product. “The Mothership” behind the insurance and financing of IT equipment also makes good money on finansialisation of the debt and insurance, these contracts are repackaged into an SPV, Special Purpose Vehicle, which issues bonds the sale of which generate a profit (assuming that most of the debt is paid and most of the insurances expires worthless).

        Whoever bought the “Samsung Galaxy 7 AAA” issue may have a sad retirement.

    4. Katharine

      Or keep your business there when a little shopping around might find you a community bank or credit union that was run more responsibly.

  2. Vatch

    So long as the bank asks the customer’s permission before doing anything, I don’t think this is such a big deal. At my bank they occasionally offer me the chance to sign up for a credit card. I politely refuse, and then I don’t hear about it for several months. Various retail stores also offer me the chance to sign up for a credit card, and I give them the same polite refusal.

    What was so bad about the Wells Fargo scandal was that they signed people up for things without permission, and then charged fees on the new accounts. That was theft.

    1. Vatch

      However, I do agree that it is quite bad that the bank lost the computer record of the customer’s safe deposit box.

        1. OrangeCat

          Frans, I agree.

          The above is similar to my experience – I was steered from a teller to a personal banker when I tried to close an account.

          The bank has tipped its hand: they are telling the customer who they are.

        2. Vatch

          Okay, if the bank forced him to meet with a personal banker when he just wanted access to his safe deposit account, that’s definitely bad. When tellers inform me that I can get a credit card, it only consumes 15 or 20 seconds of my time. If they were to force me to spend several minutes with a personal banker for no good reason, I would be angry.

  3. Carolinian

    These days the teller at my non Wells Fargo bank regularly asks me whether I would like one of their new super duper credit cards. This started maybe a year ago. At first I was surprised that tellers were now acting as sales people but it could be this is the new industry wide practice. Not so great minds think alike.

    1. fajensen

      In Denmark they will try to get you to re-mortgage your home and invest the proceeds in a pension fund.

      Now, this is unlikely to work out well for the “investor”, too many wheels within wheels have to match up just right over a rather long time. One has to be able to service the increased debt till retirement, in a deflationary job situation, for example. If one assumes corruption and bad incentives there is Zero chance: The bank gets the fees for the new loan and for selling the pension, the investment will be lost in “the market” but the mortgage remains forever.

      My bank person *knows* what I know and what I am like as a person, and yet, she still has to sell me this crap as per company policy. So, I was perhaps a bit rude in my rejection of this offer. Made a formal complaint too. Not on her but on general terms: “Which brainiac came up with this stupid scheme?, Is it even Legal?, Don’t EVER try this kind of thing again or I will change bank”. Didn’t hear anything back.

  4. DolleyMadison


    Good news…the NYSC upheld Wells Fargo v. Cynthia Carssow-Franklin. A New York bankruptcy court had ruled against Wells Fargo on the grounds that a note with a ta-da endorsement that Wells had provided in Carssow-Frankin’s bankruptcy case was invalid. The opinion that was filed yesterday in the appeals case from the Southern District of New York upholds the idea that the endorsement was not “genuine,” thereby proving that Wells Fargo is not the holder of the note in question. This is a stunning turn of events, and one that is long overdue.

    Perhaps tide is turning? I wish the press would make the link from the fraud in the retail bank with the fraud in the Master Servicing business.

  5. JEHR

    For a short period of time in the 1990s I worked for an IT firm that published video packages that taught buyers how to use various software. We worked in teams of three or four and had very strict deadlines to meet for each unit of work. The manager tried to bribe us with $1000 each if the team met the deadline. After I worked a few days on my part of the project (often 80 hours a week), I knew I would not meet the deadline and worried that I would be the cause of my team not getting the money. The leader of our team got very belligerent with me when I complained about her giving me yet more additional work on my part of the project: in fact, she gave me part of her workload. I quit over night and never went back to the job. I really was incensed that we were not respected for our work alone; monetary incentives are not the best incentives.

    My team leader inherited my part of the project and she quit shortly after finishing it. A lesson in How NOT to Treat People. The video brought back all the bad memories of that time.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      The weird things is that so far as I am aware, most research indicates that bonuses usually don’t actually work as an incentive – they just ensure that employees do their best to game the system, so they can be counterproductive. I suspect its part of the corporate mentality that overt incentives and punishments are seen as the sign of ‘strong, proactive’ management while actually trusting employees is seen as weak.

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